Italy lags behind almost every other European country when it comes to women’s employment. Employment rates for men are more than 20 percentage points higher than those for women. And women represent only 4 percent of company board members, the second-lowest rate in Western Europe, even though on average Italian women are better educated than Italian men.

This poor representation has serious repercussions for the economy. According to The Economist, Goldman Sachs has calculated that increasing women’s participation in the labour market to male levels would boost Italy’s GDP by 21%. The Italian government is working to try to improve the situation, and recently introduced legislation requiring a minimum quota of women to sit on the boards of listed companies. But this does not affect cooperatives, which in theory are founded on principles of equality. Equal rights for women have been at the core of cooperative principles since the dawn of the cooperative movement in the mid-19th century.

The iDEE association for women in cooperative banks, founded in 2004, is working to redress this imbalance and enhance and promote the contribution of women within the BCC, the Italian network of cooperative banks. The non-profit association is funded by membership fees and donations, and operates within Federcasse, the national federation of cooperative banks, which represents 412 cooperative and rural banks around Italy. The association is open to everyone, men and women, within the cooperative banking system.

Working groups have been founded on the four core themes of life balance, diversity, knowledge management and environmental and sustainability development, and every year the association organizes two events based around working group topics. Activities range from publishing a booklet, Equilibrio, on tools for achieving a balance between work and life, and organizing the TraguardiDEE award to promote the commitment of women within the cooperative banking system.

Claudia Gonnella is the head of communications for the iDEE association, and also works within Federcasse’s communications and social banking department. She explained that iDEE is lobbying for more women to be included on the boards of the cooperative banks within the BCC network. “The gender gap is a crucial issue for all of Italian society,” she said, though “things are changing in the banking sector.” She said that the cooperative movement was taking a different and perhaps more inclusive and proactive approach by founding iDEE, the only women’s association within Italy’s banking sector.

“In Italy the banking sector is not the sector of women, but of men. That’s the tradition. We are working step by step to change this,” said Claudia. Currently iDEE is asking for at least one woman to be included on each bank’s board. Federcasse itself has only one woman on its Executive Committee. “We are working for a better situation. One woman on the board is not a good situation. But it’s a first step.”